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Cowes, VIC

The major holiday centre on Phillip Island

Cowes is a popular seaside resort and day tripper destination. It is Phillip Island's main town and administrative centre and has a holiday atmosphere with pleasant sheltered beaches, a good range of cafes and a substantial number of accommodation options. It is commonly used as a base for visitors wanting to explore the island and consequently, apart from its beaches and a small number of attractions in the town, the primary appeal lies in the Little Penguin Parade which occurs at Summerland Beach every night. 


Cowes is located at the northern end of Phillip Island, 140 km south of Melbourne via the road down the east side of Western Port.


Origin of Name

Cowes takes its name from the port on the Isle of Wight, England. it was originally known as Mussel Rocks but the name was changed by the Government Surveyor, a man named Cox.


Things to See and Do

Foreshore and Beaches
The primary appeal of Cowes lies in its watery setting on the shore of Western Port. The town edges a number of narrow beaches and the walk along The Esplanade (the main road beside the beach) is an opportunity to enjoy the scenic foreshore and the views across the water. Near the jetty there is a grassy embankment under cypress pines. It has picnic and barbecue facilities, a children's playground, toilets and is a popular fishing spot. Rock pools characterise the basalt rock formations at the end of the amusingly named Erehwon Beach (Erehwon is "nowhere" backwards). The beaches, edged by three low rocky headlands, face north across to French Island and the Mornington Peninsula and are characterised by family-friendly, quiet waters.
To the east of Steele Street and The Esplanade is the Lovers Walk which leads past Erewhon Point, through tea-tree, banksia and yellow broom and on to an area of jacarandas and pines. The pines were possibly planted by Baron von Mueller, the first curator of the Melbourne Botanical Gardens. The Lovers Walk ends at Dunsmore Road but it is possible to continue east along the beach to the inlet at Rhyll.
Anglers, most of whom prefer to fish off the jetty, can expect to fish for snapper, channel whiting, gummy shark, flathead, King George whiting, flounder, Australian salmon, garfish, trevally and pike.

Phillip Island and District Historical Society
Located at 89 Thompson Street, the Phillip Island and District Historical Society is open from 10.00 am - noon on Thursdays and Saturdays or by appointment, tel: 0400 900 612. It has exhibitions on the history and wildlife of the island with displays devoted to geology, natural history, Aboriginal history, maritime history, the early settlers and the island's bridges, schools and cemetery. For more detailed information check out https://pidhs.org.au.

A Maze 'n' Things Theme Park
A Maze 'n' Things, which is located at 1805 Phillip Island Road, Cowes is a family holiday entertainment which offers a range of intriguing optical illusions, a large timber three-dimensional maze, puzzles and mini-golf in sections called Magic Manor, Puzzle Island, Maxi Mini Golf, Sky Trail and Maze. Tickets can be purchased for combinations of these attractions. There are souvenirs, toilets, barbecues, a kiosk and a playground. Opening hours are from 10.00 am to 5.00 p daily, tel: (03) 5952 2283, or check out http://www.amazenthings.com.au.

Phillip Island Wildlife Park
Located at 2115 Phillip Island Road, Cowes is the Phillip Island Wildlife Park which is the largest privately-owned wildlife park in Victoria. It is set on 24 hectares which incorporates 6.5 ha of wetland. There are over 100 species of Australian animals including emus, cassowaries, echidnae, crocodiles, dingoes, goannas, wedge-tailed eagles, pelicans, koalas, snakes, kangaroos, black swans, wallabies, dingoes, rosellas, lorikeets, cockatoos, kookaburras, native owls, Tawny Frogmouths, Tasmanian devils, crocodiles, wombats and a nocturnal animals centre. There are picnic areas, souvenirs, toilets, barbecues and a kiosk. The admission fee includes a bag of animal food. It is open daily from 10.00 am. to 5.00 pm daily, tel: (03) 5952 2038 or check https://www.piwildlifepark.com.au.


Other Attractions in the Area

Phillip Island Penguin Parade
Located 11 km south-west from Cowes is the Penguin Parade site on Summerland Beach. The little penguins, native to Australia, are the smallest of their species, growing to a mere 33 cm in height. They possess waterproof feathers and are most plentiful in summer when they are rearing their young. Each evening, just on dusk, hundreds of little penguins make their way back to their burrows in the sand dunes. The penguins go out to sea each day to catch food (mostly pilchards and other small fish) for themselves and their young. They return to the beach in 'rafts' (groups - sometimes of only a few, sometimes of some dozens) and make their way up the beach to their nests where they usually lay a couple of eggs which take about six weeks to hatch. The chicks remain in the nest for two months.
In recent times the activity has become so popular that a substantial visitors' centre with award-winning educational displays, a cafe, a theatrette and a souvenir shop has been established on the site. It is open daily from 10.00 am to dusk and offers a range of viewing options. See https://www.penguins.org.au/attractions/penguin-parade/activities/ for specific details.

The range includes:
* General Viewing - from tiered seats overlooking Summerland Beach
* Penguins Plus - up close viewing from the seats
* Underground Viewing - a special eye level view of the penguins in their burrows
* Guided Ranger Tours
* VIP Tours
* Ultimate Adventure Tours
* Little Wonders Family Tours - 30 minutes with a ranger.
Walkways and boardwalks have been constructed to ensure that visitors do not stray onto the sand dunes The viewing area is an open air theatre with multiple viewing positions from tiered seats. Visitors must keep to the designated viewing areas. Rangers strictly patrol the site.
* During the summer and public holidays, it is advisable to pre-book your tickets
* The Parade is an outdoor experience - it is necessary to dress appropriately.
* Plan to arrive one hour before the penguins appear at sunset. The 'penguin arrival time' is advertised around the island. It is sensible to be seated at least 30 minutes before the Parade begins.
* Watch the audio-visual and computer interactive displays at the information centre
All of the profits go towards protecting the penguins' habitat and other research and conservation projects.
The Penguin Parade, Churchill Island and the Koala Conservation Centre are managed by the Phillip Island Nature Parks which was formed in 1996. The Park also manages coastal, bushland and other reserves on Phillip Island. There are a variety of ranger led activities throughout the January and Easter school holidays. For more information tel: (03) 5951 2800 and check out https://www.visitphillipisland.com/listing/penguin-parade.

Phillip Island Grand Prix Circuit
Located 6 km south of Cowes, off Back Beach Road beyond Smith's Beach, this famous race track is the home of the Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix. As early as 1928 an Australian Car Grand Prix was run on the island's unsealed roads. The present circuit was opened in 1956 and redeveloped in 1988. In 1989, it hosted the first Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix which was won by Wayne Gardiner. It has also served as the venue of the Shell V8 Supercars series and the World Superbike Championship. 
The Grand Prix Circuit Visitor Centre features displays detailing the history of motor racing on Phillip Island. There is also Trackside Tuesday with Go Karts; Hot Laps with an experienced driver; a guided circuit tour; a circuit viewing experience; a simulator race centre; slot car racing; and push bike rides of the circuit. The complex is open daily from 9.30 a.m. to 5.00 p.m., tel: (03) 5952 9400. Check out https://www.motogp.com.au for more details and tickets. For a full list of the activities available at the circuit check out https://www.phillipislandcircuit.com.au/family-fun.

Pyramid Rock and Berry's Beach Walk
Beyond the Grand Prix circuit, about 2 km west on Back Beach Road and 9 km from Cowes, down Pyramid Rock Road is the car park and lookout across to Pyramid Rock - a striking basalt column in the shape of a pyramid which is located offshore. There are fine views of the coastline from a 5 km (return) walking track which is a combination of boardwalks, gravel and grass. The walk takes around two hours. Check out https://www.visitbasscoast.com.au/pyramid-rock-to-berrys-beach-walk for more details.

Kitty Miller Bay and the Wreck of the Speke
Further westward on Back Beach Road, and 12 km from Cowes, is a turnoff to Kitty Millers Bay, a delightful secluded cove. The Kitty Miller Shipwreck Walk (1.8 km return) starts at the car park. Walk east along the beach and rock platform, to the wreck of the SS Speke (one of the largest three-mast ships of its day) which ran aground in 1906. The remains (mostly the bow of the ship) can best be seen at low tide. There is an excellent and detailed website (with interesting photos) at http://www.humbletrail.com/speke-shipwreck. It notes that "The Speke was originally a three-masted steel ship over 90 metres long, however, after the impact, majority of the ship was broken up into smaller debris that was scattered along the coast. The condition of the bow and dispersed ruins at this site, has deteriorated over time. The rusty steel and ongoing erosion most definitely adds to the experience, stamping itself as a maritime monument from last century."

Swan Lake
Located 11 km from Cowes via Ventnor Road is Swan Lake, the only freshwater lake on the island. It is a rich source of interesting birdlife and there is an easy walking track (1.3 km, about 40 minutes return) which leads to two bird hides at the edge of the lake. From the hides it is possible to see black swans, Cape Barren geese, ducks, swamp harriers, cormorants, black-fronted dotterels, Australian white ibis, spoonbills, white-faced herons, purple swamphens, shearwaters and masked lapwings. There is an excellent and downloadable brochure. Check out https://penguins.org.au/assets/Conservation/Education/PDF/2017-NN-Swan-Lake2.pdf.

Nobbies Centre, Seal Rocks, The Nobbies and The Blowhole
Point Grant is located at the south-western tip of the island, 14 km from Cowes. It is an ideal place to walk on the extensive boardwalks, look across at the 16,000 fur seals who live on Seal Rocks and to enjoy the sheer beauty of this wild and rugged section of Phillip Island coastline.
The Nobbies Centre, an ecotourism destination, overlooks the Nobbies, Seal Rocks and Bass Strait. The Nobbies is a rugged rock platform formed by volcanic activity 40 to 60 million years ago. To the south-west of The Nobbies, 1.5 km offshore, are Seal Rocks, home to a colony of Australian fur seals - the largest fur seals in the world. They have been a protected species since 1891 and feed on squid, fish and crayfish. The males measure up to 2.5 metres and weigh around 360 kg. The females are smaller. Their coats, when dry, range in colour from a yellow hue to greyish-brown on the back and fawn or brown on the side although, when wet, they look dark brown or black all over.
In the breeding season, the males arrive in November to claim a site and the females arrive later in the month. Each male has 10-20 females in his community and each female has one pup which is usually born in mid-January. The community can be viewed with binoculars from the Nobbies Centre and the boardwalk
For those who want a closer look there is a two hour coastal wildlife cruise which leaves from Cowes and offers excellent opportunities to see the fur seals. Check out https://www.wildlifecoastcruises.com.au/cruises/seal-watching for times and prices.
The other main attraction at Point Grant is the boardwalks have been built on the slopes below the Nobbies Centre. It is a short walk around to The Blowhole which can be impressive during high tide and heavy seas. Silver gulls nest here and the chicks can be seen in spring and early summer. Check https://www.visitphillipisland.com/listing/the-nobbies-centre for additional information and the opening times for the Nobbies Centre and cafe.

Grossard Point
At Grossard Point, on the north-western tip of the island 7 km from Cowes, is the grave of Captain Grossard, an early settler who was mistakenly shot in 1868 while visiting the residence of the McHaffie family. It is located on Grossard Point Road which runs off Ventnor Road. Captain Grossard's dying wish was that he should be buried on a cliff near the sea. The inscription on the grave reads: "Sacred to the memory of William Phillip Grossard, formerly of Bideford, Devonshire, many years captain in the Merchant Service, who was killed by accidental discharge of a gun during a visit to Phillip Island, the 17th December, 1868."



* Prior to the arrival of Europeans Phillip Island was home to the Boonwurrung Aboriginal people.

* In January, 1798 George Bass entered Western Port. He named it Western Port as it was, at the time, the most westerly known harbour on the coast.

* Bass returned in October, 1798 with Matthew Flinders. They anchored off what is now the settlement of Rhyll on the eastern side of Phillip Island. Bass thought that Cape Woolamai resembled the head of a snapper and so the island became known as Snapper Island.

* Lieutenant James Grant made the first known passage through Bass Strait from the west in 1800.

* Grant returned in 1801 at the instruction of Governor King. During that voyage he built a simple cottage on Churchill Island. This was the first European settlement in what is now Victoria.

* Nicolas Baudin explored Western Port in April, 1802. He named French Island.

* The explorers Hamilton Hume and William Hovell believed that their 1824 overland journey from New South Wales had reached Western Port. This was wrong. They had reached Corio Bay near Geelong.

* In 1826 a French vessel, the Astrolabe under Dumont d'Urville, examined Western Port, arousing fears of French colonisation.

* Governor Darling decided to forestall any prospective French plans by establishing a military and agricultural settlement at Western Port. Captain Samuel Wright was dispatched with troops, 21 convicts and William Hovell. Wright established a small military settlement at the present-day site of Rhyll on the north coast of Phillip Island and called it Fort Dumaresq. However, fresh water proved a problem and the outpost was moved to Corinella which was called Settlement Point.

* Hovell's exploration revealed that Western Port was unsuitable for agriculture, owing to poor soil and lack of fresh water. This led to the abandonment of the settlements in 1828.

* In 1840 the explorer Paul Edmund de Strzelecki passed through Western Port on his journey from the Murrumbidgee River through Omeo to Melbourne.

* Between 1802 and the 1840s, because of the colonies of seals which inhabited the coastline, sealers made regular stopovers on the island. Their settlements were short-lived and designed only to process their catch.

* The first permanent settlement occurred in 1842 when the McHaffie brothers were granted a pastoral lease covering almost the entire island. It was mainly used for grazing sheep.

* In 1868 the island was surveyed and made available to selectors. The first recorded land sale took place at Rhyll.

* More sales proceeded in 1869 at Cowes which had been known as Mussel Point.

* Jetties were built at Rhyll in 1868 and at Cowes in 1870.

* By 1870 the Isle of Wight Hotel had been built at Cowes. An Anglican church was built that year.

* A jetty was built at Cowes in 1870 and a ferry service began from Stony Point on the Mornington Peninsula.

* By 1872 there were 165 settlers on the island.

* Fishing had emerged (particularly for crayfish) and chicory was grown for the first time in 1870.  Sheep, cattle and mustard were also part of the island's agriculture.

* Municipal government commenced in 1871.

* A State primary school was opened in 1874.

* Development was slow. A number of early settlers were forced to abandon their land owing to drought. An exodus occurred in the 1870s with much of the property bought up by a small number of landowners.

* A Presbyterian Church was built in 1895.

* By 1902 there were no more than 50 settlers.

* The real development of the island occurred in the 1920s with the establishment of an access track to the penguin colony.

* In the 1920s visitors accessed the island by means of the ferry service at Cowes where a number of grand guesthouses were built. Visitors tended to explore the island by horseback.

* Warley Hospital was opened in 1923.

* The Isle of Wight hotel burnt down in 1925. It was rebuilt.

* The Shire of Phillip Island was declared in 1928 and the first motor race was held on the island that same year.

* A Catholic Church was built in 1938.

* A bridge linking the island to the mainland was built in 1940.

* By the late 1940s nearly three-quarters of Australia's chicory crop was being grown on Phillip Island.

* The Warley Hospital closed in 2008.

* The Isle of Wight Hotel burnt down in 2010.

* In 2011 only 38.3% of houses in Cowes were permanently occupied. The rest were holiday homes.


Visitor Information

Cowes Visitor Information Centre, 91-97 Thompson Avenue, tel: 1300 366 422. Open 9.00 am - 5.00 pm daily.


Useful Websites

Visit Melbourne has a useful site on Cowes. Check out https://www.visitmelbourne.com/Regions/Phillip-Island/Destinations/Cowes for more information.

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